Despite their best attempt, the Wildcats (8-6, 0-1) fell in their first Western Athletic Conference game of the season in Nacogdoches to the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (9-5, 1-0), 75-68.
In the WAC preseason poll, the Wildcats found themselves being ranked as the fourth ranked team in the league, while the Lumberjacks were just above them and the third place team. Both teams also had storied history against each other, with the Wildcats earning a win in the last matchup during the quarterfinals of the WAC tournament.
The first eight minutes of the first half stayed close, but a 13-0 run midway through the half helped Stephen F. Austin gain a commanding lead to start off the game. The Wildcats were eventually able to cut down the lead slightly before halftime, but according to head coach Brette Tanner, the damage was already done.
“We were out-toughed, they came t0 play,” Tanner said. “They turned us over and got the rebounds early. We were playing backwards and we talked all week that we can’t play back. We’re just trying to do what we try to do, but the things that we worked on for three days we didn’t do. Then by the time we settled in, we were down 18 points.”
Starting in the second half, the Wildcats came roaring back. The process was slow, yet steady, and by the 10:32 mark, both teams were tied at 51 points. SFA keeping a small lead, but the threat of the Wildcats taking their first lead of the second half stayed looming.
“I was really proud of our guys fought back in the second half and gave themselves a chance to win, and that’s a couple of games now where we’ve done that,” Tanner said. “But we can’t continue to do that and expend the energy like that. We played well for about 30 minutes tonight, but we’ve got 40 minutes. So we got to figure it out and probably time to change the rotation a little bit. But that’s part of a season-long journey.”
The game stayed a one or two possession game all the way until the final two minutes. While the Wildcats struggled to score the Lumberjacks stayed consistent, making the game just out of reach for the Wildcats.
“They had some players make plays,” Tanner said. “We had a couple of great defensive possessions but they just made great plays. That’s what happens and that’s why you can’t dig yourself a hole. We played great to claw back into the game and then they just had a couple really good players make some really good plays. You can’t put yourself in that position, and that’s where I’m disappointed, and I don’t think I say this very often, but we got out-toughed.”
Even with the loss, the Wildcats saw a season-high performance from sophomore guard Ali Abdou Dibba, a transfer from Chicago State. In 26 minutes, Dibba scored 19 points, nearly making it a double-double with 9 rebounds. Redshirt senior guard Immanuel Allen added 10 points while senior forward Airion Simmons finished with 11 points.
For their next conference game, the Wildcats return home on Saturday to take on an I-20 rival, the Tarleton Texans. ACU won both matchups against the Texans, but most recently won on March 5 in a 61-56 victory in the last game played inside the Teague Center.
The Wildcats and the Texans will tip off inside Moody Coliseum on Saturday at 3 p.m. CST for Alumni Day, with the game streaming live on ESPN+ and the ACU Sports Network.